1 refugee every 4 inhabitants: Syria challenges Lebanon

Salomé Ietter, translated by Amélie Rastoin
5 Octobre 2015

Since 2011 about 1.5 million Syrians have been seeking asylum in Lebanon. 1.5 million people, this is more than a quarter of the Lebanese population. To face government lack of involvement, NGOs, local and international initiatives raise and try to give answers to the refugees needs. Information and training are major in a country with threats of war coming from mortal politic dissensions far away from daily issues for families.

A refugee camp in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Credit Maurice Page
A refugee camp in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Credit Maurice Page
To understand what is going on in Lebanon, one has to understand the special connexion existing between this country and the refugee issue. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. In 1951 the Geneva Refugee Convention implemented this principle within the Public International Law. Yet despite this status coming from old such as recent histories, with the end of the 20th century came more and more distrust towards asylum seekers, due to various phenomenon such as decolonisation, economic recessions or left-wing party weakening.

Some analysts have even started talking about transition from “right to seek asylum” to “right to be denied asylum” from the most popular countries to apply. In Lebanon, refugees have brought their cultures and histories that influenced the country. Have a walk in Bourj Hammoud borough in Beirut to dive in Armenian immigration era from 1915, when Armenians were running away from Ottoman genocide. Then from the 1940s and 1950s Palestinian refugees have been the ones leaving their mark on the politic situation in Lebanon, creating tensions that got stronger during the 1975 - 1990 civil war, when some people gathered to defend the “Palestinian cause” and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) while others claimed that they didn’t “deserve” to sacrifice the country.

Today when one talks about 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, coming from a country having – both positive and negative – very strong connections, one has to think of the civil war with its reasons and its damages. Lebanese are quite aware of the daily risk existing for them. In Northern Lebanon, where many Syrian refugees settle, Tripoli inhabitants testify about it: conflicts burst out regularly between Assad supporters and anti-Assad groups, an example of events going on in Syria having consequences on Lebanese lives.

Political perception of refugees

Two different views of Palestinian refugees are becoming prominent, which are quite opposite. Some talk about refugees like neighbours they have to help, when others see them as trouble in a country with a precarious situation. The 1990 Taif Peace Agreement officially put an end to the civil war and claimed the PLO responsible through actions it led from the Lebanese territory, which fueled conflicts that called for reprisals from Israel. When one starts thinking that the Lebanon civil war is caused by the PLO siege being in the country, therefore by the Palestinians living in Lebanese territory, it does make the refugee seem a trouble maker. This phenomenon, sometimes called “Palestinian predicament”, is still influencing asylum seeker policies.

Between 2012 and 2014 the government let NGOs and international organisations deal with that issue. Syrian refugees are not seen as “refugees” by the government, but as “displaced” people. Lebanon hasn’t signed the 1051 Refugee Convention, yet is an executive member of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and therefore relies on it to deal with its asylum seekers. The government fail to foresee how long the conflict would last, how massive the issue would get, and how risky this situation is to keep a stable country nowadays.

When it comes to Syrian refugees, one should also take into account how “Syrians” have been considerate in Lebanon way before 2011. These two countries used to have very strong connections, which are now either blamed or praised by the population. The Syrian army have been occupying Lebanon for 30 years from the beginning of the civil war until 2005, officially through an operation of stabilisation but tacitly to maintain a political hold on this historical “little brother”. Most of the Lebanese population gathered its claims about Syrian presence during the 2005 Cedar Revolution. Therefore politics in Lebanon structured itself around two sides, one supporting and one being against Syrian government.

Besides conflicts due to the Assad regimen and Syrian military presence on their territory, which are different from basic relations to Syrian people, Lebanon fear the “Syrian worker” as much as France would fear the “Polish plumber”. Every country has their scapegoat, and in Lebanon workers coming from Syria are the ones blamed for the lack of employment; even though many Lebanese are happy to give them their jobs in building industry. It is therefore important to think of the politic management of the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon in this specific context.

Arrival to the territory

Le Journal International got the chance to meet Habbouba Aoun, responsible for a co-program at University of Balamand, in charge of gathering efforts coming from various initiatives and of training NGOs. She gives answers to understand the current situation.

Management issues start when people arrive on Lebanese territory. “When it comes to the legal process, refugees meet UNHCR members at the official borders and get registered. They then get driven to a place where they can settle – if they have no relatives in Lebanon they will be sent to a camp”. However, the government wouldn’t get involved in the refugee issue until 2014 and therefore had no refugee camp to provide. Even though it opened two of them in September, 2014, there are more than 1,500 improvised tent villages to be found – most of them are in Bekaa Valley, where Habbouba Aoun focuses most of her actions.

Yet she points out that “there are two ways to pass through the border: the legal way and the illegal way, and the arrival is different from one way to another.” Some refugees don’t sign up with the UNHCR. “Because of the political context, sometimes they are scared of their political background from Syria. They are refugees because of a conflict opposing various groups in their country, and we have to remember that”. Despite many Syrians have houses in Lebanon, most of refugees have run away to the unknown and left everything behind. “We have to be fast to give an answer to face this flood of homeless people having no resources, who have left everything behind”. Habbouba also highlights that the refugees “don’t always know what they can get from international law, because it would depend on these various contexts. Some people know how to do yet others don’t or sometimes don’t want to register, too distrustful”.

Refugees and Lebanese who live in the communities most affected by the arrival of new refugees become more and more vulnerable. This situation has been lasting and resources come to their end. The World Food Program (WFP) also supports thousands of Syrian families through a program to give each UN registered refugee 30 dollars a month. The food and sanitary situation is therefore critical, and this goes with uncertainty about its duration for refugees as for Lebanese.

“Along with increasing figures, the needs is becoming more urgent and the situation is getting worse” – Habbouba Aoun.

NGOs to cope with the State withdrawal

Lebanon is one of the countries with the biggest amount of NGOs, and this didn’t start in 2011. Why so? Since the so-called NGOs are non-governmental, they exist to deal with what administrations don’t. According to the UNHCR, “exceptional Lebanon sense of hospitality will be quite challenged”, however hospitality from Lebanese people is to distinguish from official selective government hosting. In addition to the policy effective towards refugees, the government is also determined to get a totally neutral politic answer to the conflict in Syria. The “humanitarian aid” implemented in Lebanon is therefore coming from the coordination of the UN, the UNHCR, the local or international NGOs, and the recently committed government. There are quite a few NGOs and they have various commitment levels, training standards and knowledge, they have therefore various degrees of efficiency.

Habbouba Aoun and her organisation within the University of Balamand Faculty of Health Sciences are in charge of coordinating efforts from various initiatives and of training NGOs about healthcare. Even though her office is in Beirut, most of her work happens in Bekaa with the refugees and especially the people taking care of them. Her goal is therefore to gather all the various efforts under the “humanitarian aid” concept as well as to provide a sanitarian training major to people working to help refugees. Habbouba’s organisation focuses on 4 kinds of skills: the first one, called “wash”, concerns everything about water and hygiene; the second one is about the World Food Program; the third one is about education and the fourth one, where Habbouba puts most of her efforts, is healthcare.

Education and healthcare

Education is the priority and Habbouba Aoun and her partners implement actions that help to train the NGOs to this issue so they can take better care of the refugees, getting closer to their actual needs. Syrian children represent half of the refugee population and have huge schooling issues in Lebanon, where education is quite different from how it is in Syria. In Lebanon the children can choose either French or English as soon as they start school, and then get general classes in one or the other language, such as mathematics or history classes. In Syria, school is only in Arabic. Education also is about security on the territory: Habbouba Aoun is coordinator of the Lebanese Landmines Resource Center and she explains that this issue is connected to the refugee situation. These mines, which have been there since the civil war and conflicts against Israel, are a big deal in preventive work.

“Lebanon is a contaminated country and refugees are not safe. And now Syrian territory has to deal with that same issue as well. The Syrian army have been accused of putting mines at the border in order to prevent people from leaving the country, especially soldiers from deserting”.

“People need to be educated so they watch out for those mines; some are visible but not all of them”.

In addition to these education issues and this need of training about risks at the border, managing sanitary issues is a hard task as well. Hospital services in the country are not ready to deal with such a flood of population and with the diseases it might initiate. The High Refugee Commissioner provides most of the medication, yet nothing is planned to manage accidents or long term medication. Financing is a stake getting more and more important, and not only concerns Lebanon – and as Habbouba states, “In the whole world, financing keeps decreasing”.

One refugee for every four inhabitants: who will get their daily bread?

“We are just about to go from the best to the worst”
Habbouba Aoun

“Lebanon have no resources so we have to share scarce resources among a population growing by twice or three times. There is no water, and everybody want to drink. There is no power, and everybody need it. It creates conflicts within people. We cannot deal with so many people.”

As Habbouba reminds us, Lebanon was already lacking resources because of the Syrian crisis. Harsh measures have been implemented by the government about water and power. Power is cut between three and twelve hours a day according to each area. The direct consequence is that most of the buildings have individual generators to be used during the power cut, which increase the power bill, costing several hundreds of euros per month. Sharing resources is therefore responsible for tension between non-wealthy Lebanese and Syrian refugees.

These tensions also hit the employment market. The precarious situation of refugees and the price of the rent they have to pay to get their families a roof meaning they offer an extremely competitive workforce. With no camps and a bad anticipation, population has also influenced the housing prices, already too high for many Lebanese.

Tensions and government responsibility

With these tensions, refugees can be viewed as scapegoats. In 2014 Human Right Watch denounced that 45 city councils established curfews for “foreigners” after conflicts between locals and refugees. After Syrian warriors infiltrated the border city of Ersal and killed 18 Lebanese soldiers, Lebanon strengthened its security, fearing Daech get to the border. Here starts a well-known vicious circle.

Some Syrians facing this image while they are in a precarious situation can get to violent behaviours that will create intolerance from some Lebanese who sometimes happened to set some camps on fire. These tensions and fears from the populations fuel the conflicts around the two main political alliances: one is supporting Damascus which includes Hezbollah while the other, its opposite, includes the Movement of the Future led by Rafiq Hariri’s son (his father’s murder in 2005 is often attributed to Syrians or to Hezbollah).

According to Habbouba, the issue comes from the political context that influences both perceptions of the refugees and moreover the general management of the public system. This system is harming the population and might make them reach their limit and eventually get violent.

“In Lebanon no effort is being made to actually improve the public system. This is a weak system which is already not enough to support Lebanese. Lebanon should take benefits from this situation that enlightens the system weaknesses to improve it once and for all”.

Should the international community get involved again until the end of the conflict?

In January 2015 the World Food Program threatened to suspend its aid so the international community could get involved again. Even though most of the 4 million refugees gather in the bordering countries hope that the conflict will come to an end so they can get back home, the crisis has been so long that aid from other countries is needed, ones which are further but have more resources to help. Hosting of refugees by more developed countries is getting better, even though many people are criticising how slow the process is and how selection with quotas is way too little compared to the need.

For instance Paris is welcoming less Syrian refugees than Germany , however claims the good quality of its efforts. Though that is a good point, in that context rapidity and efficiency remain major knowing the daily instability of the refugees situation in Lebanon.